Released in 1956, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit seemingly isn’t a war movie. The uniform worn by its protagonist, Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), is exactly what the title says it is (with a fedora as the prescribed headgear). And as the film begins, we see a thoroughly civilian life: Tom taking the afternoon commuter train from New York’s Grand Central Station to join his wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones), at their modest house in the suburbs.
It’s a house, we quickly learn, that Betsy hates. To her it represents the tomb of the dreams that she and Tom had shared when they began life together. The movie centers on what Tom is going to do about it. Will he stick with the modest but “absolutely secure” job he already has, or will he look for another job that pays better and can buy a nicer house in a nicer suburb? Tom already wears the garb of corporate America. He seems outwardly at peace with the cultural conformity that corporate America demands. So the question is not whether he’ll wear that gray flannel suit the rest of his life—it’s whether he’s willing to inhabit it.
Ultimately, Tom accepts a new job in public relations with a large broadcasting company. Assigned to publicize a mental health initiative that is the hobby horse of the company’s owner, Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March), he soon finds himself Hopkins’s protégé, with limitless prospects for advancement.
Although this brief summary may make Tom’s dilemma sound mundane, producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Nunnally Johnson knew audiences wouldn’t see it that way. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the film adaptation of Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel by the same name, a bestseller that won a vast readership because Tom wasn’t just a businessman climbing the corporate ladder: he was a World War II veteran. And all across America, there were millions of men who could look at Tom and see themselves.
The filmmakers could have left World War II offscreen. A number of critics thought they should have, with one complaining that the film was “padded out with flashbacks to the war years.” Nonetheless, a good portion of the movie’s first hour consists of scenes from Tom’s wartime service. We see him stab a young German sentry to death because he needs the boy’s greatcoat or risk freezing to death. We see him throw a grenade in the frenzy of combat, recognizing too late that it will land at the feet of his best friend. And we also see him indulge in a brief but heartfelt affair with a sad-eyed Italian girl, Maria (Marisa Pavan).
Some have mistaken these movie flashbacks for psychological flashbacks, averring that Tom suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But nothing in the film suggests that this is the case. So what function do these sequences actually serve? Surely the affair merits screen time. Tom will eventually learn that he has a son by Maria, that both child and mother need his financial help, and that in order to do the right thing he must first do a very painful thing: tell Betsy about the affair. But to make her understand how he could love her and still have strayed, he has to tell her about what he did during the war: How he had killed that young boy for his coat; how he had killed 16 other men in combat, not counting his best friend; and how with death all around him he could scarcely imagine getting out of the war alive. These, too, are events the audience needs to witness.
Ultimately, it’s Tom’s confession that resolves his dilemma with the seductions of corporate conformity. The threat to his marriage brings into bold relief what really matters in life. And when, in a remarkable act of grace, Betsy forgives him, she does so not just from love for Tom but from renewed respect. She had once been drawn to Tom’s integrity. She had come to doubt its existence as she watched him flirt with playing the corporate game. But Tom’s decision to accept financial responsibility for Maria’s young son restores her faith in his character. And it’s Betsy’s validation that leads Tom to strike a personal bargain with the corporate world: he’ll give his life to it from 9 to 5 to provide for his family, but not an hour more than that.
In this moment, Tom and Betsy finally, truly reunite. And it becomes clear that just as it took Odysseus a decade to return from the Trojan War, it has taken Tom a decade to return from his own. In that sense, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is indeed a war movie: it’s a retelling of Odysseus’s homecoming to Penelope. ✯
This article was published in the December 2019 issue of World War II.